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Digital twins will change operations with use cases across industries

Digital twins are busily replicating real-world objects, processes and environments in the metaverse. Industrial and commercial applications are manifold, because the use potential of such digital twins is virtually unlimited, but technological, commercial and regulatory hurdles exist

The current internet has proven to be a successful – in many ways superior – alternative to provide services such as travel and hotel bookings, music and video provision, and shopping in general. As the capturing, processing and rendering of three-dimensional environments will become more common, digital twins will help connecting clients with many other service providers. For example, individuals might scan their interior house spaces or garden area to work with architectural offices or landscaping firms.

New opportunities will emerge for collaboration among designers, across supply-chain participants, and between company representatives and users. In January 2023, Seoul Metropolitan Government started implementing Metaverse Seoul, “the first-ever platform of its kind in the entire world, after having successfully undergone a beta test of various administrative services such as economy, education and tax affairs”.  No doubt, in Seoul, many services will move into the metaverse.

Simulation of interactions of machines, within entire facilities, across supply chains, and in entire ecosystems, will enable new services. Exploration of processes for asset management, maintenance and repair will create more effective approaches. Anticipation of potential problem areas in designs and component arrangements will prevent accidents and increase reliability. Optimisation of existing setups of assembly lines and operations will reduce costs. Simulation of human behaviour – particularly of crowds in urban environments or in emergency situations, for instance – will address political and societal decision-making needs.

Use cases of digital twins exist in all industries. In the design of machines and systems, digital twins help improve performance, accelerate prototyping and prepare implementation in advance. Testing, debugging, and certification of equipment and facilities can be done in cost-effective virtual environments, and results of investigations readily can be shared.

For operations and processes in general, digital twins enable not only repeated testing of workability of blueprints and plans, but also constant monitoring to increase accuracy and resilience, improve safety and sustainability, and enable advanced forms of risk management and accident analytics. In manufacturing and construction, digital twins can support planning, accompany projects and process, and guide analyses to reduce costs and increase efficacy of projects and operations. In healthcare and medical procedures, digital twins can support predictive medicine and enable personalised approaches by creating digital twins of individual patients.

As technologies advance and adoption expands, the applications will become increasingly comprehensive. Nishant Batra at Nokia explains how digital twins’ benefits will evolve in the coming years. “So far, digital twins have been used mainly for monitoring and analysis, but the full potential of the industrial metaverse is far greater. As edge and cloud processing capabilities, private 5G wireless networks, and new sensing, interface and AI technologies are added to the mix, we’ll move from a state of awareness to a state of control. Instead of merely digitally monitoring the factory floor, we’ll be able to virtually manipulate it.”

The benefits will be substantial. “We’ll see a complete fusion of operational technologies (OT) with the metaverse, allowing industry to reconfigure their operations to constantly changing supply and demand.”

Digital twins and adaptive management

Digital twins will provide a platform to compile and visualise already-available data. Manufacturing, production, logistics, distribution and retail already collect a wealth of data on warehousing and resources, time requirements, delivery routes, shrinkage, and product loss, for example. The value of digital twins here lies in the way they can visualise such information. Data availability does not mean process understanding unless humans can easily and intuitively access critical information.

As digital twins provide a home for all of the existing data and a platform to combine and correlate these data, managers and decision-makers will find additional data to add onto the existing types of information. More, increasingly accurate and inexpensive sensors will enable ubiquitous data collection and lead to increasingly real-time representations of factories, networks and the marketplace.

Such gradually omniscient platforms that enable viscerally accessible representations will then offer novel applications to improve on current practices. Continuous monitoring of operations across corporate functions will become the norm. Remote maintenance and operations will create new use cases for already-existing equipment and lower costs in many application areas. Design and planning will leverage an increasingly powerful tool to create more effective and resilient factories, and envision advanced processes and alternative routings, for instance. Simulations can be initiated at the push of a button and take into consideration the most current data.

Adaptive logistics management will benefit tremendously. Decision-makers will obtain options for a wide range of crises situations – such as the logistics challenges that the 2002 ports lockouts created on the West Coast of the US; the production and supply chain interruptions that Thailand’s floodings in 2011 caused; and even decision support for industrial disasters such as the 2010 explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico.

Simulations will provide a better understanding of critical paths, shortcomings and vulnerabilities. What if an energy supplier’s operations are disrupted by demand increases because of heatwaves? What if a business partners’ delivery system collapses because of a cyber attack? What if a crucial delivery route is blocked such as what happened with the Suez Canal in 2021?

Hurdles and considerations

Experience with digital twins is limited so far. First, data privacy, security, ownership and many other related considerations exist. With increasingly interconnected twins, these potential problem areas will become more relevant as access considerations and ownership questions become complex.

Currently, creating digital twins faces many technical and infrastructure hurdles, as well as regulatory uncertainties. Costs of advanced twins are substantial and return on investment is difficult to judge. Buy-in from partners and collaborators is uncertain – how comprehensive will such twins become along supply chains and logistics networks?

Technical challenges are manifold. Physics force latency times on users. For most applications, that won’t matter that much; for some applications, latency is a serious issue. Network requirements, computing speed, interface availability and performance are only the most obvious considerations. Data sharing, access security and compatibility of data are all issues in search of best practices: “The task of building the digital twin is therefore by necessity a project that must involve experts from many different disciplines.” 

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Non-technical issues are also important. Data quality, data ownership and data partnerships matter. Digital twins can support sustainability, but the very use of expansive IT equipment and devices will increase energy requirements. Labour and managerial concerns exist – Karoliina Salminen with VTT provided valuable perspective on this issue in Adopting and adapting to the industrial metaverse. Training and skill development availability can quickly become a bottleneck if adoption of digital twins and twin-related infrastructures and applications accelerate.

A framework of standards will become important if digital twins are to fulfil their promise of connecting organisations and processes. Currently, only a patchwork of standards exists that addresses data management, networking and interface considerations. As digital twins start connecting more tightly among partners and across industries, security and safety considerations will become crucial. Then there are political and policy considerations, particularly with growing tensions across geopolitical divides.

Market size and commercial relevance

The market for digital twins is potentially massive. Strategic Market Research expects the market to reach over $130bn by 2030. The forecasters expect North America to capture more than a third of the market share. The analysts perceive the integration of digital twins with artificial intelligence and internet of things technologies as a pivotal factor for the growth of the market.

Additional projections illustrate expectations:

In other words, expectations are high – but such numbers must be put into perspective. First, predictions in general miss the mark; it’s the nature of predictions. Second, it’s difficult to figure out what assumptions went into these numbers – which components, services and applications are part of the projections? Finally, digital twins represent high-growth market opportunities, but the truly exciting – and commercially relevant – aspects of the technology are what these twins will be able to achieve for operations and organisations.

What is the market size of the internet? Not only is it unclear where to start with the evaluation and where to stop – if every internet-connected device counted, the market would encompass entire economies. More relevant is how the internet changed personal lives and commercial processes over the past quarter-century. The internet is an enabler of personal, commercial and societal activities, and has changed the way we all interact with basically everything. Digital twins will result in similarly momentous changes. Two decades from now, we will ask ourselves what the world looked like before digital twins existed.

Martin Schwirn is the author of Small Data, Big Disruptions: How to Spot Signals of Change and Manage Uncertainty (ISBN 9781632651921). He is also senior advisor, strategic foresight at Business Finland, helping startups and incumbents to find their position in tomorrow’s marketplace.

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